Dr Colette Balmain, or maybe a ghost writer, reports from the biggest KPOP event in the UK this year:
Taking the Plunge
This is the first concert review that I have written although I have been to many concerts, some of which I have good memories of and others which I wish I could press the delete button on. My first concert was Frank Zappa at Brighton Pavilion and my last one before BTS was Kayne West at the o2. In between these I have seen (in no date order), Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones (before they became OAPs), Simply Red, Simple Minds, Stiff Little Fingers, Metallica, Scorpion, U2 and to my eternal shame Gary Glitter. The ones that stand out as memorable are Bruce Springsteen and Kayne West. The first because I was standing near the front and had an awesome time dancing and the second just because Kayne is awesome in concert (and considerably less problematic than Gary Glitter although it doesn’t get him a pass for recent antics). I also saw John Martyn at his last concert in London which had to be the most depressing concert ever. He died just a few months later.
I had stopped going to concerts because of worries about accessibility including but not limited to the availability of disabled toilets. My last operation (bowel resection because of strictures caused by Crohn’s disease) in 2011 and resulting functional problems had, I thought, put an end to me being able to attend any large-scale event without the most meticulous planning. I didn’t foresee that my work on Korean cinema would end up leading me down the rabbit hole that is BTS and result in an outing to the most spectacular concert that I have been to. Neither did I dream that trying to get a ticket involved technical wizardry, queue jumping or the inability to do so even with o2 priority, and lots of swearing as my ineptness to identify storefronts and convince bots that I wasn’t a bot kept on shoving me to the back of the queue. And I won’t even go into trying to ring the accessible phone line as I had been told to do so for over two hours for no reason but to feel moments of my life ebb away uselessly.
I was lucky in that I did get tickets a few weeks later when I was trying the AXS website and some had been put back into the system. Although the tickets were four rows back and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stand for the whole concert, I was determined to go. I am currently finishing my book on East Asian Gothic Cinema and my next project is a book on BTS, as I believe that what we are seeing is unprecedented in terms of the circulation of non-Western non-White culturally distinctive popular culture across global borders, both virtual and physical.
Generally, culturally odourless products (and people as the ultimate commodities) circulate better (see Koichi Iwabuchi, Recentering globalization:, 2002) in the global economy, while culturally distinctive ones are confined to the orientalist, cult marketplace which fetishizes difference and otherness. Before BTS (and yes, there was such a thing), I had used KPOP in my teaching but hadn’t really researched it or understood it. I had used MVs from Rain, SHINee and Big Bang mainly in classes on semiotics, as Korean MVs are particularly rich texts for close textual analysis. Then PSY came along in 2012, and ‘Gangnam Style’ was everyone’s style for a while, and the global success of his hit was used to promote Korean film to those who were still reluctant to embrace cinema with subtitles. But PSY conformed to orientalist stereotypes about Asian men and was celebrated for his comedic MVs rather than accepted as the star that he was then and is now.
Then along came ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ MV in 2016 and the MAMA staging of ‘Boy Meets Evil’ at the end of the year award show and I was lost, forever doomed to stan a boygroup whose members are not much older than my students. I have seen BTS dismissed as the ‘SNS’ group and their fans called ‘hysterical’, ‘obsessed’ and ‘neurotic’ by generally middle-aged white men for whom the only type of group is one made up of similarly middle aged white musicians (or those who will become so) and who I presume suffer from castration-anxiety in the face of overwhelming passion and desire for that which is constituted as other and dangerous. Going to a BTS concert was my chance to find out for myself what the relationship between the fans and BTS is like as well as experience the group singing live. I did watch video footage from some of the previous concerts of the Love Yourself Tour to prepare myself but the reality outweighed the expectation a hundred fold. I went with my fourteen-year-old niece who is really into culture and was slightly reluctant to begin with. Now she is a fully fledged BTS stan, proclaiming to me after the concert that her bias is Kim Namjoon (RM) and being regretful that she didn’t have an ARMY bomb (my wallet was not so regretful).
The day of the concert
I wasn’t convinced by the o2’s customer services’ assurances that I would get quick access to the arena, and booked Sky Backstage instead (I would totally recommend this to anyone who has Sky). I was allowed to take my own drink and food in because of my lack of functioning bowel means I dehydrate very quickly and I had to fast from the night before (a word of warning: mini babybell are nasty warm, and some rice crackers have liquorice in them). We got there about 5 pm and I fed and watered my niece to the sounds of singing and fan chants from those already in the arena before she had her face painted with coloured glitter and it was time to go to our seats. We were in block 102, Row F, seats 85-86 (these are great if you can stand but not so much if you have difficulty standing for long periods) and the seats around us were already full. How the o2 managed to pack so many people in standing is beyond me. There literally was no room between people. In terms of seating, the only seats available were in some of the VIP boxes. BTS could have sold out the arena for a week judging by how crowded it was and the Battle Royale atmosphere of ticket purchase.
The band exploded onto the stage with their latest single ‘IDOL’ which is the perfect opening for a concert, and set a high standard which was maintained through both group and individual performances. They followed this with ‘Save Me’ which transitions into ‘I’m Fine’, the choreography of which is exceptional, expressing the close relationship between the members through gesture and performance in an emotive display of trust and harmony, both visual and aural. The solo stages were outstanding, reminding us that each member is a star in their own right, while the group ones demonstrated their synergy and fraternity. The youngest member, the golden Maknae, Jeon Jungkook had unfortunately injured himself in practice the previous day and was unable to dance. He is the centre, and one of the main dancers as well as vocalist for many of their group songs.
For BTS, as other Idols, the concerts are the culmination of all their hard work (which involves very little time off and constant ‘comebacks’ involving music show performances amongst other things) and a chance to interact freely with their fans. Jungkook apologized for his injury on several occasions, but the truth is that these things happen to performers and especially dancers. Did it impact on the experience for the audience? No. Did it impact on Jungkook’s experience of performing in London for the first time? Sadly, yes. Korean musicians are often way too hard on themselves, striving for perfection in every song and performance, and unnecessarily feeling that they come up short as a result (see Burn The Stage documentary TV series which is available on YouTube Red, and also the film due for release mid-November).
Without the frenetic dancing that accompanies Jungkook’s solo ‘Euphoria’, the song was transformed into an intimate torch song which was as good, if not better, than the original. And with the exception of ‘Mic Drop’, Jungkook was fully integrated into all performances. This also enabled us to recognize (if we didn’t already know) that the bonds between the members are close and that while what we see in their television shows (Run BTS! Bon Voyage etc.) is of course, edited for impact, their relationship is an authentic one.
It is a difficult to pick a highlight as the standard was so high across performances. I was glad that I got to see (or peer at – I left my glasses at home as well) ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ as part of the medley of older songs even though this was at the expense of seeing ‘Bapsae’ live; parts of the performance of which had been doing the rounds on stan BTS twitter. The trivia solos showcased the strength of the rapline: Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) dazzled us with his intricate footwork on ‘Just Dance’, Min Yoongi (Suga) ‘Seesaw'[ed] into our hearts and Kim Namjoon dazzled us with his wordplay on ‘Love’. For the vocal line, Park Jimin (Jimin) broke our hearts with the lyrically beautiful ‘Serendipity’, Kim Taehyung (V) seduced everyone in the arena with ‘Singularity’ and Kim Seokjin (Jin) reduced some of us to tears with the emotive ‘Epiphany’.
It is difficult to find the words to encapsulate the experience of seeing BTS live for the first time. This was also my first time seeing a Korean group in concert, so I have nothing to compare them to. Having said this, the concert was spectacular like nothing I have ever experienced before. With explosions of confetti, gold strands of paper fluttering down from the ceiling, and swirling smoke, BTS put on a performance that never lagged or flagged for nearly three hours. I was finding it difficult to stand upright at the end but with the energetic performance of Mic Drop, BTS seemed as fresh at the end of the night as they did at the beginning.
The concert was an emotional and affective experience. French philosophers Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari see affect as inseparable from great art, writing that “A great novelist is above all an artist who invents unknown or unrecognized affects and brings them to light as the becoming of his characters” (What is Philosophy, 1994, p.174). Popular culture also has produced great artists (and I am never comfortable with the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘popular’ culture) and I would put BTS in that category. The sophistication of their lyrical wordplay, the high quality of their back catalogue, their appreciation of other cultures and musical and personal growth, as well as their social message of self-love and inclusion, positions BTS as one of the most important contemporary artists. Their work has a positive, measurable effect on society and their music has an affect which is transformational. Their fandom, ARMY, puts into practice the ethos and ethics of BTS regularly contributing to charity in their mission as the public face of BTS. In a recent episode of Bangtan TV ‘Behind the UN General Assembly’ (21st October 2018), Min Yoongi talks about how ARMY promotes the message of the group, “‘Honestly …We’re always doing things and talking about things, but that itself doesn’t help people all that much. ‘I don’t think our acting alone is a big help to others. I think what’s really amazing is the fact that the people who like us and support us are taking up [the cause] in that way’ (The Metro, 10th October 2018). In this way, the music and actions of BTS can be considered as affective.
Affect is embodiment with the work of the artist transformational at the level of experiential learning. Media theorist Simon Frith points out that, “Music constructs our sense of identity through the direct experiences it offers of the body, time and sociability, experiences which enable us to place ourselves in imaginative cultural narratives” (Music and identity. Questions of cultural identity, 1, 1996, 108-128, p. 126). Fans of BTS are dismissed as hysterical, screaming, obsessed teenagers, and it is no surprise that each of those terms is associated with the feminine, which is accorded a secondary status compared to the rationality of masculine language and discourse. And yet, the concert was not full of screaming, excitable teenage girls – and what if it was? – but rather was representative of a cross-section of society in terms of gender identity, race, sexuality, class, dis/ability and age.
It was strangely reassuring not to be the oldest person there because as a middle aged (and I hate the term) woman, I should be knitting tea cosies and watching soaps rather than stanning a boygroup. I will admit to the cat though, if that helps situate me within a comfortable stereotype of how a ciswoman should act and appear as she ages.
And while there were screams, I am not sure why this is considered any different to cheers at a football match, after all it is a vocal sign of appreciation, isn’t it? In addition, the concert was also an example of what media theorist Henry Jenkins terms as ‘participatory culture’ (2006) in that fan chants are an inseparable part of KPOP, with fans learning them beforehand in order to be able to fully participate – and this is despite the chants being mainly in Korean. For nearly three hours approximately 20,000 people sang, danced, waved their ARMY bombs, with BTS, fully participating in the transformational experience of the concert. The sight and sound of this was a beautiful one, something unexpected and something truly spectacular.
BTS’s Love Yourself’ message is one which many of us see as more important than ever in the divisive and toxic atmosphere of contemporary society which seeks to other and demonise anyone who is different (For example, today’s news that the Trump’ administration wants to resex gender as purely biological is extremely frightening as trans people are one of the most oppressed and marginalized groups, historically and now). For three hours people came together united in their fandom, connected through their passion and transformed through their interactions. I am not sure if I can deal with the stress of trying to get tickets for another BTS concert, but if they come back to London, I am sure I will be there with my tablet, computer and phone, once again failing to identify storefronts.
My name is Colette, I stan BTS, my bias is Min Yoongi (Suga). This is my confession. If anyone asks, the cat wrote the review.
PS: RM released his second solo project yesterday (22nd October 2018), Mono, which is lyrically and aurally gorgeous. It should remind us that being an Idol in Korea is not an easy profession, as even with a group it is possible to feel alone in the crowd, out of place, away from home, with little time to enjoy the experience. Big Hit also released a MV for ‘Forever Rain’ which made me and most of the fandom cry. Enjoy!